We enter the mysteries of one of the most fascinating works of art, The Tempest (in Italian La Tempesta) (c. 1503) by the Venetian painter Giorgione in the Gallerie dell’Accademia in Venice, Italy. The theme is mysterious, a man and a woman immersed in nature. Who are they? What is the message?
Historical and artistic context The problem is that the subject, as in many works by the Venetian painter, does not follow standard iconographies. Giorgione’s clients were the dynamic Venetian business aristocracy, a cultured, open and secular élite that promoted the creation of a private and non-celebrative art, freer in the choice of themes and interpretation. Venice was a thriving economic and cultural centre, where after the fall of Constantinople in 1453, many Greek writers had found refuge thanks the ancient tradition of business contacts. In parallel with Aldo Manuzio, a renown European publishing company had developed. All these factors made Venice a point of reference for a secular culture, as opposed to the other great cultural hub, yet with religious imprint, of Papal Rome.
An intellectual digression?
The fact that the work was in Vendramin’s collection – he was a sophisticated man, profound connoisseur of classicism – suggests that he might have been the client. Therefore, we could hypothesize that Giorgione wanted to create an intellectual play on culture – a sort of “painted poetry” as the Latin poet Horace had theorized. Calvesi, a well-known critic, actually believes there may be references to Neoplatonic texts and that the painting is an intellectual game, intended for the delight of a selected few who understood its hidden meaning.
Like many artists from the Veneto region, Giorgione has a particular sensitivity for colour and landscape. While Florentine painting was centred around the man framed by nature, the Veneti and the Venetians gave the landscape a leading role. Furthermore, while the former focus on the drawing or painting itself, for the latter it is colour that creates the shape, almost abandoning the use of contour. Giorgione, placing himself into the Venetian tradition, continues this pictorial discourse – he digs deep into the theme of the landscape and creates the famous “tonal painting”.
That is to say, the colour of the objects, a face, or a landscape, is superimposed on the colour of atmospheric light or on objects that reflect the light at the side of the painting. For example, in the woman’s face, the shades of grey light of the stormy sky are added to the skin’s own colour. This is achieved through glazing, where a highly diluted colour is applied and spread in overlapping layers so as to create reflections and uniform the atmospheres – look closely at the reflections of the lightning on the clouds, which is a perfect example of this technique. This allows Giorgione to obtain extraordinarily realistic effects in the air, clouds, lightning and its glow, creating a suspended atmosphere and the feeling of the imminent unleashing of nature’s power – fundamental in giving the work a feeling of mystery. In fact, there is a feeling of restrained strength, an upheaval of the elements that looms from the bottom of the painting and that adds mystery to the figures in the foreground.
Lastly, the landscape appears to be the true protagonist of the painting. In the end, perhaps the meaning of the work is to show the total harmony between man and nature – a representation between myth and literary connotations, an anticipation of a genre that would later become famous in Venice. In this case the source of inspiration could be the artists of the “Danubian School”, whose works were present in the Venetian collections.
These painters who worked between southern Germany and the north of the Alps, were specialized in the creation of rural landscapes with figures and people (Albrecht Altdorfer, Pair of lovers in a landscape, 1504). However, perhaps the solution is even simpler. This work is simply a show of skill, a test in which the artist wanted to challenge himself to prove his skills and compete with Apelle, the greatest painter of classicism, who Pliny the Elder said was able to represent things that were impossible to paint, such as lightning and thunder. Giorgione wanted to launch a challenge from a distance? What if this apparent rustic tone was a deception? Centuries and time have left this enigma unsolved.
Anna Maria Calabretta